'The lull before the [July 1] storm'

June, 29, 2010

Ah, the poker game is on as we count down to noon ET on Thursday.

"It's the lull before the storm," one player agent told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

Agents and GMs "insist" this is their best offer and can't compromise anymore as the contracts of pending unrestricted free agents are set to expire … until their next offer comes in.

As a hockey writer, it's a strange and frustrating time; you are caught between teams and players, and the information you receive is filtered through intense negotiating pressure. I learned a long time ago never to write "Player X is definitely going to market." You have to leave yourself wiggle room because anything can happen at the 11th hour.

So, with the world's longest disclosure out of the way, my BlackBerry was on overdrive Tuesday as I heard from agents and teams. Here's what I can decipher (kind of):

• Penguins GM Ray Shero is a busy man, holding simultaneous conversations with both the Dan Hamhuis and Sergei Gonchar camps, as both blueliners are set to reach unrestricted free agency Thursday. It might surprise some that the Pens keep talking to Gonchar even after acquiring the rights to Hamhuis on Friday night. But while there continues to be communication, talks are still at a stalemate.

"Ray and I have spoken daily the past week, and throughout the season," Gonchar's agent, J.P. Barry of CAA Sports, told ESPN.com on Tuesday afternoon. "We just don't seem to be able to find something that works for both sides."

The stalemate has been obvious for a while now: The Gonchar camp wants three more years for the 36-year-old star, while the Pens say they won't go past two years out of fear of the 35-and-older collective bargaining agreement rule. Up to this point, it's a hurdle that both sides have not been able to overcome. On one hand, I understand Shero's concern with a term that would stick to his cap regardless of whether Gonchar plays it out the three years. On the other hand, Gonchar remains incredibly productive, notching yet another 50-point season in 2009-10, and he's four years younger than Detroit great Nicklas Lidstrom.

"Sergei has been the most offensively productive defenseman in the league since the lockout," Barry said. "Over the past decade, Sergei and Nicklas Lidstrom have been in a class of their own. Sergei would like to play at least four more seasons and play for Russia at the [2014] Sochi Olympics. At that time, he will be the same age Nicklas Lidstrom is now, and he will go year to year from there."

On the surface, Shero has some nice leverage in the talks with Hamhuis and Gonchar, seemingly by playing one player off against the other. But the two players are represented by huge and experienced firms in Newport Sports (Hamhuis) and CAA Sports (Gonchar), and they're not going to be intimidated. And frankly, in the case of Hamhuis, I just think he wants to go to the market.

Again, this is a fluid situation that can change with just one phone call.

• Devils GM Lou Lamoriello won't go down without a fight as he attempts to retain Paul Martin, who would become one of the top UFA blueliners on the market Thursday.

"We'll continue to talk to New Jersey," Martin's agent, Ben Hankinson of Octagon, told ESPN.com on Tuesday afternoon. "Paul loves playing there. We still have a couple of more days to figure something out, so we'll keep talking to Lou."

My gut feeling? Martin goes to market.

• The Zbynek Michalek contract talks continue.

"We are still talking to Phoenix and hoping to get a deal done with them," Michalek's agent, veteran Allan Walsh of Octagon, told ESPN.com via e-mail Tuesday afternoon. "They have been great to Z, and he would love to stay."

If he does go free, I believe that the Ottawa Senators covet him as a replacement for Anton Volchenkov, and the hook will be the chance to play with his brother, winger Milan Michalek. But there will be plenty of suitors for a 27-year-old, top-four blueliner.

Sticking with the Coyotes, it is still quiet in the talks with center Matthew Lombardi as of Tuesday afternoon. You're talking about quite an important player for the Coyotes, a player who just might be the No. 1 center in a weak UFA market come Thursday. Like anything, the best offers from both sides will come Wednesday or Thursday morning.

• On Wednesday, Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter is expected to once again speak with Matt Keator, the agent for forward Christopher Higgins. Higgins, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent, is an intriguing commodity, as he's coming off a poor season but still has a track record of success. My guess is he'll be looking for a reasonable one-year deal to cash in a year from now if he has a bounce-back season.

• Ilya Kovalchuk remains property of the New Jersey Devils, but he's hours from hitting the UFA market, which was the intention all along. That was certainly still the plan as of Tuesday afternoon. Although it doesn't mean the Devils are out of it, they'll have to compete for him Thursday on the open market. Still, for the life of me, I can't figure out who besides the Kings and Devils will make the Russian star an offer.

Kovalchuk is by far the most attractive commodity on the 2010 UFA market, yet I can't think of many teams that could take him on. Many contenders can't afford him under the cap, while others simply can't afford him period. Having said that, as one NHL GM told me this past weekend in Los Angeles, there are always one or two teams that surprise the league and go after a player like him. For example, a year ago, no one -- and I mean no one -- thought the Chicago Blackhawks would go after Marian Hossa. Let's see whether there is a surprise suitor for Kovalchuk come Thursday.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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